What is archival theory?

Here I am in Adelaide, Australia, sitting and thinking about archival theory.  As you do. This week I gave a speech to the Doctoral student consortium at the Australasian Conference on Information Systems about my experiences undertaking a PhD. While I was writing my presentation I realised there is not much in the way of methodology or research design in the archival literature about how to build theory. I think there are two reasons for this: firstly, that archival theory is assumed to be somewhat static or the principles are set in stone. Even new ideas stem from old ones such as “new provenance theory” or “macro-appraisal theory.” The second is that there is very little research in the sense of systematic, rigorous, reflexive research as a science that has resulted in developed theory for archives. I had to figure it out myself and this is in part the story I tell.

I thought I would have a look at Wikipedia’s definitions of archival science and archival theory to figure out exactly what archival theory means. This kind of thinking for me is linked to a conversation I had many years ago about what was an archival research question. And now I see that the FARMER conference is taking Anne Gilliland‘s idea about what archives do that nothing else does. I reckon that the idea of archival identity in relation to formulation of research questions and an understanding of the discipline are linked.  Continuum models, my field of expertise, did not exist more than 25 years ago as a coherent theoretical contribution, but now they are part of the archival discourse and archival theory. So what makes archival theory archival theory?

I see the first line of Wikipedia’s entry on Archival science states that first of all archival science is synonymous with archival studies. This might be the case for some people, but in Australia we do not call anything archival studies. Along with archival records, archival theory, and archival research questions, I am not sure entirely what this means.

Secondly, Wikipedia says that archival science is the “study and theory of building and curating archives.” Archives in this sentence links to another article that says that an archive is: “…an accumulation of historical records or the physical place they are located.” This I also have an issue with as it excludes the practice of constructing archives, which contributes to the theory as much as theory informs practice. The idea that archives are built is at least recognition that construction takes place, but it also implies that once an archive is “built” it is finished (conceptually), which is something I disagree with. It also implies that the building and curating of archives as a practice is studied, rather than the conceptual foundations of what contributes to the construction of the archive.

The next thing I notice is that it says “An archival record preserves data that is not intended to change.” This is problematic as well as what data is being referred to? Contextual data (metadata) is part of how a record is defined and this will change over time according to what and who is accessing the record and how it is used. So, not static at all.

In my mind I translate these ideas to mean an archive is a place where stuff has inherent and time-bound value based on the information contained in the object. Once it is built then archivists organise the pickings so that people may be amazed at their content and marvel over their historical look and feel. Not true.

Archives do not even have to exist physically to exert power, fear or to silence.

Records can be deemed archival before they are even born.

The online dictionary defines “archival” (adjective) as being “of or relating to archives or valuable records; contained in or comprising such archives or records.” In an archival theory context this definition focuses on the grouping together of records (as archives), the identity (valuable records) and holdings (contained). Archival is therefore subjective understanding of value of informational content and context. How is the subjective value established? This identity is equally as part of how archival can be understood as the grouping or the holdings. There exists theory, but I believe it is entwined in an understand of grouping and holdings. 

continuum-diagThe term archive has been adopted by others outside of the discipline and practice. It would be interesting to explore in more depth how others see and understand the archive (not just Derrida). I have a feeling it is through this understanding of subjective value. This area of interest is something I want to explore in more depth. In my research and in the model I created I removed the archive (it appears in the Records Continuum Model) to look more closely at the concept of archival systems and how these fit into and are an extension of other information systems. My concept of archival refers to establishing continuing value by whoever at whatever point in time. It is not about the archive as a place or a collection but the application of subjective value.

In this context, archival theory is then about understanding the conceptual principles of how decisions (including what decisions and their implementation) are made in relation to subjective value. By anyone, at any time.

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